Issue 43 (2014)

Natal’ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov: Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta, 2013)

reviewed by Zdenko Mandušić © 2014

intimnye mestaDirected by the newly engaged couple of Natal’ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov, Intimate Parts received the prize for Best Debut Film at Kinotavr 2013, Russia's largest national film festival. The film gathers a string of narratives about the sexual problems of contemporary Muscovites. For these thirty- to forty-somethings, sex is no longer a matter of youthful lust or passionate romance. Intimacy and intercourse is instead laden with anxiety and confusion almost to the point of being traumatic. There are scenes of copulation in the film, but rather then addressing the viewer with exquisite naked bodies, Intimate Parts foregrounds the corporeal experience of confused desires. As they make love, husband and wife, Eva (Ekaterina Shcheglova) and Sergei (Aleksei Chupov), each imagine the other to be the male circus performer they equally desire. Equating homo- and heterosexual desire the film seems to take stabs at Russia’s new federal law banning gay “propaganda.” Another character, Aleksei (Nikita Tarasov), a husband and father in the midst of an evolving sexual crisis, is drawn to a corpulent, feeble-minded street vendor. The film shifts between these narratives and those of a free-loving photographer and a sexually repressed chairwoman of a morality committee. These latter two characters establish the opposite poles of sexual extremes in the film waging a war for public opinion. While the photographer is developing an exhibition of images featuring close-ups of human genitalia, the chairwoman works to censor any hint of sexuality on television or film. Between this complete sexual denial and unbridled lustful freedom lie the problems of married couples, individual fetishes, and frightening realizations of sexual preferences.

intimnye mestaLaconic dialogue throughout Intimate Parts reveals little more than occupations or family roles of the film’s characters. Without biographies to inform their respective inhibitions or differentiate them to any great extent, the lack of depth establishes the commonality of their sexual anxiety, uncertainty, and dissatisfaction. In this manner the film’s interests lie in the shared quality of these characters’ fraught sexual experiences. Instead of delving into eroticism, these sketches focus on psychological inhibitions and misfiring sexual impulses, with plenty of humor, but short of any slapstick moments. While the origins of these problems and attitudes are left undeclared, the film manages to foreground the lack of expertise most people have in carnal matters. All of the characters fumble around in search of satisfaction. They seek to fulfill their desires, but their inhibitions impede their achievement of contentment. The film’s drab, de-saturated color palette makes this lack prominent. The dearth of vibrant or warm colors parallels the lack of enjoyment these characters, save the photographer, suffer in their sexual lives.   

intimnye mestaThe film begins in a meta-textual fashion with a viewing situation: in a long shot, a small group of mourners stands next to a coffin. After several close-up shots of the mourners' faces, we are presented with the naked corpse of Ivan (Iurii Kolokol’nikov), the photographer, his body de-sexualized, ready to be cremated. Lacking any dialogue this scene suspends the contemplation of the body as a sexual object. The following scene affirms this economy of visual communication, as spoken sexual discourse proves problematic. Standing on a rooftop and describing his work, Ivan is unsure of correct pronunciation, whether one says “pizdy” [pizda means “cunt”] or “piozdy.” While the use of colloquial nouns represents a transgression of polite discourse, his hesitancy suggests a lack of linguistic certainty in discussing sex or even human reproductive organs. Ivan’s hesitancy designates language as an insufficient medium for the experience of corporeal desires and frustration, thus the film’s emphasis on revealing taboo subjects visually rather than through dialogue. The limitations imposed on sexual discourse are carried over into the next scene where the morality committee chairwoman, Liudmila Petrovna (Iuliia Aug), demands that certain sexually explicit scenes be removed from a film. When a film expert protests, asserting that a great film director devised the scenes in question, the chairwoman asserts that art should be left alone, but everything superfluous, like sex, should be removed. More than the dichotomy between censorship and the exposition of taboo subjects, this initial sequence establishes the social mores governing the discourse on sex: Depictions of sex are often characterized as pornography, or criminalized in the case of homosexual love, while everyday language lacks a register to frankly discuss sexual enjoyment and more importantly the modern anxieties that accompany intimacy and intercourse.

intimnye mestaIt would be a mistake to completely interpret the film through the strict opposition between Ivan's unbridled sexuality and the agonizing inhibitions of Liudmila Petrovna. While the lustful artist might epitomize sexual liberation, the strict, public moralist fights her own private insecurities and inhibition. Although she embodies the kind of social conservative values embodied in the anti-gay propaganda law, she is shown to be utterly lonely and forlorn. Her separation from the public she so vehemently wants to protect is echoed repeatedly by shots of her isolated either in her apartment or in the cold corridors of low-light municipal buildings. But her and Ivan's antipodal narratives coordinate to de-eroticize sexual encounters (Liudmila’s) and de-sexualize human genitalia (Ivan’s), delineating the unspoken social norms and rules which characters in the film follow, rules they unconsciously impose upon themselves. With its depiction of sexual confusion Intimate Parts lays bare the effect of socializing on the human psyche and body.

intimnye mestaSocial conventions and norms are shown imposing limitations, securing and regulating the human body within social existence. Boris, the psychologist (Timur Badalbeili), known to all the male characters, diagnoses this predicament near the midpoint of the film as the “deficit of contentment syndrome” (sindrom defitsita udovletvorennosti). In this manner, all the character, including the psychologist, try to follow through and satisfy their fetishes and desires to compensate for this deficit. Ivan’s exhibition of genitalia portraits functions as an attempt to visually cure this deficit, even though it only seems to foreground the social neurosis attached to sexual organs and sex. Liudmila Petrovna breaks her isolation, awkwardly and without a hint of romantic passion, but breaks it nonetheless when she invites her driver up to her apartment. In a great deadpan moment, the driver, now naked, nervously places his hand on the chairwoman's breast as they sit side-by-side on her bed. Following this encounter, Liudmila gets rid of her vibrator, throwing it out of the window. Ironically, Ivan, coming across and picking up the mechanical phallus, is struck by lightning. In addition to this, the married Eva takes the circus artist as her lover, while the distraught Aleksei visits an “erotic massage parlor” and even approaches his object of infatuation, the feeble-minded vendor Al’bina (Anastasiia Kholodniakova).

intimnye mestaBut Aleksei’s failure to achieve satisfaction (he runs out of the parlor out of fear he is betraying his wife and feels like a pervert after his encounter with Al’bina), points out that Boris' psychological diagnosis doesn’t get at the self-imposition of this “deficit of contentment.” Aleksei’s meltdown at the end of a film, depicted in shaky hand-held camerawork to emphasize his loss of self-control, demonstrates a break in his limitations, made all the more poignant because it follows his daughter’s assertion that she wants be a “hula-hoop girl” when she grows up. The young girl’s innocent statement confronts her tormented father with the naive, unencumbered dreams of childhood, which sends his socially subjugated mind over the edge. Through this burst of emotion, Aleksei’s problems are shown to be deeper than his symptoms that manifest as fetishes. The film thereby points inward to the human psyche while showing the commonality of human struggles with sexuality.

Zdenko Mandušić
University of Chicago

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Intimate Parts, Russia, 2013
Color, 80 minutes
Directors and screenwriters: Natal’ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov
Cast: Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Iuliia Aug, Nikita Tarasov, Ekaterina Shcheglova, Aleksei Chupov, Timur Badalbeili.
DoP: Mart Taniel’
Production Design: Asia Davydova
Music: Aleksei Zelenskii
Editor: Ru Hasanov
Producers: Bakur Bakuradze, Iuliia Mishkinene, Aleksandr Plotnikov (II)
Production: Vita Aktiva

Natal’ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov: Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta, 2013)

reviewed by Zdenko Mandušić © 2014

Updated: 05 Jan 14